London Medieval Society: Treasure in the Middle Ages

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to spend the day at the London Medieval Society’s colloquium on ‘Treasure in the Middle Ages’, and interdisciplinary conference that covered everything from finding and defining medieval treasure and displaying it in a modern museum context.

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An Alfred the Great ring which turned out to be a fake. Probably the ring of a later Lombard ruler.

The day began with Kristin Kennedy from the Victoria and Albert Museum talking about how treasure is handled and displayed in a modern museum context. Much treasure is found by accident, so displays of medieval treasure are often defined by chance. There is also a question of reliability. Secrecy and profit cause confusion about the origins of items, and forgeries can make their way into museum collections!



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Medieval treasure found in the Thames

The second paper of the day was from John Clark on treasure in the Thames. The Thames is full of pilgrim badges and swords that appear to have been thrown into the river. The question these pose is whether we should view them as a kind of ritual ‘sacrifice’, or as treasure that has been lost. Metal items are preserved better by mud and water, so it is also possible that many more of these item survive in the river than on land simply because they are better preserved. What suggests a ritual element is that many of the swords have been ‘killed’ by being blunted or bent in half. Perhaps these are swords whose owners have died. The ritual significance of throwing a sword into water is, of course, echoed in the disposal of Excalibur in Arthurian legend.

Crown of thorns.pngThis was followed by a paper from Emily Davenport Guerry on the Sainte-Chapelle and the ‘crown of thorns’ relic (pictured). The relic of the crown of thorns has been in Paris since 1239, when it was brought by the saint-king Louis IX. Born in 1214, Louise IX had the Sainte-Chapelle to house his collection of passion relics, and the most precious item of his collection was the crown of thorns relic. This wreath of aquatic reeds (notably not thorns!) was housed in various richly-decorated reliquaries, and was seen to convey the notion that Christ had ‘crowned’ France. The Sainte-Chapelle contains a wall-painting that may have been the first to show Christ wearing the crown of thorns at the crucifixion.

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The ‘Wilton diptych’ – a gift used to ratify truce between England and France.

The final paper was delivered by Jenny Stratford  and explored the way that treasure is represented in inventories. Her paper focussed on the inventories of Richard II and John, Duke of Bedford. Richard II had very many crowns, worth over £50,000 all told. We tend to think of the French court having more riches than the English court, but in reality, they were fairly similar. And, in fact, seeing them as too separate might be a mistake. It was also interesting to learn that books, unless treasurebound, rarely made it into inventories, because it was almost impossible to extract value back out of them. Even cloth-of-gold could be burned to get the precious metal back out of it, but although books are expensive to produce, once they are made, they cannot be re-purposed in a way that restores the monetary value of the precious items that went into their construction.

Conference report written by Claire Harrill. 


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